European Movement in Serbia and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation organized the conference NOTHING IN BETWEEN: The EU Proposal/Agreement on the path to Normalisation of Relations Between Serbia and Kosovo, March 22, 2023. These are the talking points of Mr. Astrit Istrefi, The Balkan Forum.
“The relations between Kosovo and Serbia” – a sentence we have all probably grown weary of a long time ago, and yet it persists. It persists, because we are constantly failing to genuinely reframe the discourse in a transformative way. How about we try that by re-asking three fundamental questions:
- We ask: what do the people in both countries want? Instead of what can we expect from the agreement(s)?
- Instead of seeking to understand the global and Western Balkans context, we seek to assess and understand it, to identify opportunities and risks.
- Finally, we seek to understand the background to -and the future prospects for Kosovo-Serbia and Serb-Albanian relations.
On the first question: Do we want a lingering conflict that never ends, or do we want sustainable peace and prosperous future/societies?
- If we want a lingering conflict then we are on the right track so no need to change anything. And we congratulate ourselves as we are doing exactly that.
- But if we want sustainable peace, prosperous future and societies then it is time we begin to demonstrate it, in all we think, say and do. It should be a genuine, integral part of our dreams, hopes, aspirations, gestures and attitudes, and most importantly, in what we say to ourselves, to people in both countries and beyond.
On the second question: what is the context – how we assess and understand it, what are the opportunities and risks?
- The world today no longer is what it used to be even a year ago. The geopolitical context is rapidly changing, and the world is confronted with multiple crisis and challenges which generate a profound impact in our continent, especially in the lives of people in both Serbia and Kosovo.
- The Russian aggression against Ukraine is having a massive impact in Europe and the world. It has caused profound, multiple world-wide crisis and challenges, from security to economic, financial, energy and food.
- Most of the six Western Balkans countries are confronted with raising nationalism, serious political, economic and other crises and instability, and with severe intra community and intra state tensions.
- Vast numbers of citizens of the six Western Balkans countries are either leaving or planning to leave the region in search for a better life and future.
- Intensified international support – like never before – for a successful conclusion of the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. This is perhaps the largest support in the last two decades, involving special envoys and advisors on the Western Balkans and Kosovo – Serbia dialogue, coming from the US, UK and EU, including Germany, France and Italy. There is also the willingness expressed by Turkey, Slovenia and other countries to assist the dialogue.
- A plan firmly backed by all EU member states and the US, including strong political and financial commitment to support its implementation.
- There seems to be a new impetus on EU integration and accession of WB countries. For example, even though with a significant delay and missed opportunities, Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia started accession talks; Bosnia and Herzegovina was granted EU candidate status; and Kosovo received green light to visa free travel in the EU.
- The Russian aggression against Ukraine seriously threatens freedom, peace and security in our continent. It is difficult to predict how the war in Ukraine will turn, and almost impossible to anticipate anything. As it stands, Serbia and Kosovo again find themselves on opposing sides in history.
- The rise of nationalism, the wide-spread conflict-generating narratives, the crisis and challenges in the political, economic, financial, energy realms and more, the democratic decline, the stalled internal and EU integration and accession reforms, the strained intra-community and intra-state tensions.
- Migration – almost every 2nd young person is either leaving or planning to leave in search of a better life and prospects elsewhere.
On the third question: What’s the background to–and what are the future prospects for the relations between Kosovo-Serbia, and between Serbs and Albanians?
- It is crucial to remind ourselves that 25 years ago there was a bloody war with devastating impact on the people of Kosovo. Its effects still run deep and are felt in every cell of Kosovo’s society. The only thing that stopped 25 years ago was the war. Conflict between the two countries continues in political, diplomatic, economic and other spheres, hampering the freedom of movement, education and employment, to name a few. For 25 years, we have continued to destroy the future of many more generations.
- The deal reached on 18 March 2023 in Ohrid, North Macedonia, between Serbia and Kosovo on the Implementation Annex to the Agreement of 27 February 2023, is exactly the message that both countries, Europe and the world desperately need in these trying times. The deal is of utmost importance to reducing the heightened tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. It sets the conditions to tone down the conflict-generating and zero-sum rhetoric of Serbia’s President Vucic, and of Kosovo’s Prime Minister Kurti, as evidenced in their respective speeches right after the announcement that a deal had been reached. Further, we hope that by reaching this deal, the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia have finally learned the essential lesson that words, gestures, symbolism, and attitudes matter and bear dire consequences, especially at this crucial geopolitical moment in the world’s history that is shaping our future.
- This agreement, even though recycled since 2013, would have normally been a cause for celebration by both leaders. We would expect them to solemnly and proudly emphasize the gains for the future of both peoples and countries. Instead, right after the announcement that the agreement had been reached, we witnessed their deep disappointment. Both leaders exuded worry, unhappiness, and perhaps even guilt for what they had agreed upon. Both made every effort to show what great heroes they are by underlining the red lines and what they did/will do to never betray the national interests of their respective countries. This turned them into tragic-comic characters who lack wisdom and courage. It was an embarrassing performance, to say the least.
To sum up: If we want a lingering conflict then we are on the right track so no need to change anything. We should applaud ourselves as we are doing exactly that and applaud President Vucic of Serbia, and Prime Minister of Kosovo Kurti who are ensuring the same with great zeal.
- Ohrid was another example that President Vucic and Prime Minister Kurti did not reach agreements led by their genuine beliefs, vision, and courage that breaking the cycle of century-long enmities, hatred, and of seeing each other through the cross-hairs is of paramount importance. Rather, according to them, they have been under “immense pressure by the international community”, and they acted so for fear of possible consequences – not for the wisdom or the drive to achieve a long-lasting peace. The only yield of such leaders to their peoples is a lingering conflict that never ends.
But, if we want sustainable peace, prosperous future and societies, then it must become clear that:
- Kosovo and Serbia do not need overbearing strong leader like Vucic and Kurti, nor the “tyranny of the majority”. Conflict transformation and lasting peace can only be achieved by visionary and courageous leaders who strike a deal because they genuinely want to, not because they have to, or need to. Therefore, what peoples of both countries should seek is leaders who dare dream like Germany’s Adenauer and France’s de Gaulle, or at least think like North Macedonia’s Zaev. Leaders, who build support, emphasize gains, take pride and implement the agreements reached with unwavering determination.
- In Kosovo, we need leaders who do not make a reference to the unprecedented guarantees for the rights of non-majority communities enshrined in its constitutional and legal provisions, but who ensure that those rights are fully implemented, enjoyed and felt by the communities. Leaders who continuously seek to elevate and advance the rights of non-majority communities.
- In Serbia, the need is imminent for leaders who recognize the independence of Kosovo, and become a primary sponsor for Kosovo’s membership in international organizations.
This is the only way to achieve lasting peace and give way to progress in both countries.